Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford
Written by Dudley Nichols

When revisiting a legendary film, such as Stagecoach, it becomes increasingly easy to over-analyze and find fault with even the smallest of  transgressions. But sometimes you have to let go a little bit, sit back, and enjoy the film for the legendary status it has earned. Stagecoach is a film I have seen before, the first such film in this never-ending Westerns marathon, and as such, it is the first experience of its kind within the marathon. I have been fairly kind to the films thus far in the marathon, perhaps overly so, impressed by something I’ve never seen before and the perceived impact it may have had on film, or the Western genre more specifically. But with Stagecoach, I can to relive the romp, to sit back and relax a little bit, already knowing that what is to come is truly spectacular. I was not surprised to find this film was exactly as I had remembered it: near Western perfection.

Stagecoach is the 19th film in my Westerns marathon, and as such I have explored a pretty diversified array of Western genre films. There have been epics, outlaws, railroads, and everything in between. Very little new can be introduced. The setting here is Arizona, with Geronimo on the war path. As a stagecoach, driven by the hapless Buck (Andy Devine), pulls into town, the customers pile into the coach for various reasons. There’s a drunk doctor (Thomas Mitchell) and a prostitute (Claire Trevor), who have both been kicked out of town. A woman (Louise Platt) searching for her military husband, and her unwanted protector, a ruthless gambler (John Carradine). A greedy businessman (Berton Churchill), trying to skip town with payroll, and a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek). And lastly a Marshal (George Bancroft) who is in pursuit of an outlaw named Ringo Kid (John Wayne). As they travel the treacherous western terrain, they learn that not every one of them is quite what they seem.

I’m not quite sure there has been an ensemble film like this yet in the marathon, and that is what truly fuels the action and drama in Stagecoach, its cast of characters. If there was an ensemble, perhaps something like Law and Order, it was not to the level of detail nor performance as this ensemble. Each character is presented, and in fact slowly revealed, as a richly defined person who has stakes in the outcome of the stagecoach trip trough the dangerous war path of Geronimo. The performances all around are pretty great. Andy Devine, in his bumbling way, is about the only one who feels a little out of place and overplaying his role at times. But even he is likable. Carradine is marvelously, suspiciously mysterious throughout, and Churchill is just the right amount of annoying and evil.

On top of the cast of characters, and the deft touch with which director John Ford handles the story, how it unfolds, and the amount of sympathy we hold for these characters, Ford also photographs a stunningly beautiful film. Back to black and white, from the color of Jesee James, Ford utilizes some revolutionary camera techniques. The pan to close up shot as we are introduced to Ringo Kid (Wayne) gets all the pub, and that shot is fine, if not a little showy, but there are countless other shots sprinkled throughout the film which are truly stunning artistic work. In particular I can think of hallway scene between Ringo and Dallas, in which Dallas is silhouetted against the moonlight outside at the end of the hallway. It’s a beautifully shot scene. Ford also has the gall to mount the camera on the stagecoach for an early POV style shot.

Stagecoach is a film which owes a lot to others that had come before it, those which had helped to define the genre. But that does not also mean that Stagecoach did not add to that conversation in a significant way. I think, after watching it for a second time and within the context the other 18 films I have seen recently as a part of this marathon, that Stagecoach is a tremendously entertaining and important reference point when discussing the Western genre in Hollywood. It is the best film thus far in the marathon, and goes a long way to coalescing both the genre as being popular, and John Ford as being a talented storyteller. If anything else, Stagecoach shows an incredible control of character and narrative storytelling by Ford. This is his third film in the marathon, and boy am I glad that we get plenty more further down the trail.

**** – Masterpiece

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